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HIV rates among Asian men ‘alarming’

A serious shortage in use of contraception by gay and bisexual men in the Asia-Pacific region, coupled with criminalisation of the practice, is causing “alarming” rates of HIV.

The warning was issued in a joint report by the UN Development Programme, the Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health (APCPM) and the University of Hong Kong’s Center for Comparative and Public Law. It said that around 90 percent of gay and bisexual men in the region do not have access to contraception.

Statistics for HIV/AIDS rates among this demographic in Rangoon have sparked alarm; according to the report, 29.3 percent are infected versus 0.7 percent of the total adult population in Burma. In Bangkok it is 30.8 percent compared to 1.4 percent in Thailand, and in Mumbai it is 17 percent versus 0.36 percent in all of India. The UN also warned last year that 18 percent of female sex workers in Burma were infected with HIV.

The report points a finger at the criminalisation of homosexuality across the region. “Nineteen of 48 countries in the Asia Pacific region criminalize male-to-male sex, and these laws often take on the force of vigilantism, often leading to abuse and human rights violations,” it says.

Although an archaic law introduced during the British rule of Burma that outlaws homosexual activity is rarely used now, stigmatisation remains. The Burmese government last year marked World AIDS Day with an article in the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper linking the disease to “socially unacceptable behaviour”.

Deeply conservative social norms, combined with record low government healthcare expenditure and limited health-related education are driving the problem in Burma. The cocktail of problems raises fears that the global effectiveness in combating the disease may not be so prominent in the pariah Southeast Asian country.

When no punitive measures are used against male-to-male sex, homosexuals, bisexuals and transgender individuals are still “subject to police abuses and are targeted by police for other offences relating to public order, vagrancy, prostitution and obscenity,” the report says.

“If countries fail to address the legal context of the epidemic, this already critical situation is likely to become worse,” it said. The report was launched to coincide with World Day Against Homophobia.

Despite the ominous warnings, however, rates of HIV infection in Burma have levelled off in recent years, from one percent of the population in 2000 to 0.7 percent today, the UN said last year.

Furthermore, figures released by the UNAIDS programme for 2008 found that the number of new HIV infections in Asia had dropped by 15 percent since 2001. Globally, there has been a 30 percent drop since the disease peaked in 1996.

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